For those with both the means and the desire to support one or more charitable projects or organizations, there are several strategies available. Choosing the right strategy or blend of strategies can help the donor optimize the impact of their gift for their particular situation.
This post assumes that the donor has a charitable intent -- while there are some financial benefits to giving, the overall success of these strategies ultimately depend on a desire to support one or more charities.
Gifts of appreciated stock (and other assets)
Assets, like stock held in a taxable brokerage account, may appreciate over time and when they are sold, the difference between the "basis" and current value may represent a capital gain and therefore a tax liability. Under current laws, "short term" capital gains on assets held less than a year are taxed at the investor's marginal income tax bracket, and "long term" capital gains are generally taxed at lower rates, but still on a graduated schedule.
Gifting an appreciated asset to a qualified charitable organization may provide a relative benefit to the donor versus "writing a check" from cash for a similar value donation.
And even those who do not itemize may have the opportunity to deduct up to $300 of giving. This post describes the 2020 version of this rule, and for 2021 the rule is expanded to allow households filing "jointly" to deduct up to $600.
Gifts from an IRA - the "QCD"
Traditional IRAs -- retirement accounts funded by "pre tax" contributions and that deferred taxes on growth and income over the years -- often represent a significant portion of a donor's accumulated wealth. But just as in the example above, actually accessing that wealth comes with a tax liability. Every dollar withdrawn from a traditional tax deferred retirement account in retirement adds to the investor's income for the year, and is therefore subject to their marginal income tax bracket. For people who happen to have relatively high social security benefits, or pension income, etc. their marginal income tax bracket in retirement may be quite high.
Under current tax law, donors over the age of 70.5 may choose to donate to a qualified charity directly from their IRA via what is called a "qualified charitable distribution". An aggregate amount up to $100,000 per donor may be excluded from their taxable income for the year.
The QCD provision is one that has come and gone in tax law in recent years, and the SECURE Act made changes to both RMD rules and age restrictions on IRA contributions that may make the QCD less attractive for certain donors.
This is a sort of "catch all" for gifts to charities made via estate planning tools. Many donors reserve their largest gifts to be part of their estate, leaving money to one or more charities after their death. In some cases, planned gifts may have multiple stages, with some parts beginning during the donor's life.
This is an intentionally minimal treatment of the "planned giving" space; the details and implementation of planned giving strategies can become very complicated, very quickly:
Planned giving can have meaningful impacts for both the donor and the recipient organizations, but also require a level of sophistication by all involved parties.
Donor Advised Funds & Community Foundations
In some cases, a donor's capacity and philanthropic intent coincide, but their ultimate goal for impact is not yet resolved. In these cases, it may make sense to use a "donor advised fund". There are national DAF programs run by financial institutions like Fidelity and Vanguard, and many regions also have local options like community foundations. In general terms, a donor may choose to make a large gift to a DAF in a given year, and then "advise" on the further distribution of those funds to one or more charities over time.
This approach may be especially useful for donors looking to "bunch" their deductions in a given year to make itemized deductions possible or more attractive; DAFs may also be a handy intermediary for making gifts on to charities with less sophisticated in-house capabilities. For example, a given charity may not be set up to accept gifts of appreciated stock, so a donor may gift the stock to a DAF and then ask the DAF to make a gift of cash to the target charity.
It is important to note here that the gift to the DAF or community foundation is "complete", meaning that the donor has no legal right to the further use of the funds. They are allowed only to "advise" on their preference for how and when the funds are distributed.
Get good, tailored advice
This blog post is not intended as tax or legal advice. David and DRW Financial have a philanthropic planning niche, and we care a great deal about part of the financial advice space, but every donor's situation is unique and their particular tax and planning needs must be considered in context. There are various limits on charity related tax deductions and specific rules that may make a given strategy more or less attractive for a given donor.
Before taking action, donors may wish to speak with a qualified tax professional, trust & estate lawyer, financial planner, or charitable advisor.
One special provision in the CARES Act can help you and your favorite charity
The last few years have featured many changes in tax laws, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or lost in those changes, but there is one new rule that can provide a pretty straightforward benefit for most tax payers AND one or more of the philanthropic causes they support.
The short version, per a quote from the IRS wesbite:
...taxpayers who don't itemize deductions may take a charitable deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions made in 2020 to qualifying organizations. For the purposes of this deduction, qualifying organizations are those that are religious, charitable, educational, scientific or literary in purpose. The law changed in this area due to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Deduct up to $300 from taxable income, without "itemizing"
Historically, to deduct charitable giving on a personal tax return required that the tax payer "itemize", and when the "standard deduction" doubled recently, many taxpayers found it difficult to itemize enough deductions to be worthwhile. This new provision in the CARES Act allows taxpayers to deduct up to $300 without itemizing.
For detailed questions on your taxes, I recommend speaking with a CPA or Enrolled Agent.
For more insights on charitable giving, philanthropic planning, and how to align your finances with your values, please consider engaging an advisory firm like DRW Financial. David holds the Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy® designation, and loves working with non-profits and their donors.
It has been a bit since I have collected together my thoughts and observations on the market, the economy, and implications for financial planning best practice. Some of this post will get technical and long winded, so I will try to capture the headline level here at the top.
Market volatility is [probably] not over
As of this writing, the S&P is still about 14% below the market highs in mid February, and about 9% below the start of the year. That reflects a remarkable "bounce back" from the lowest numbers in March [approximately +31% from March 23 to today]. As a participant in the markets as an investment manager and investor of my own funds, I certainly appreciate this bounce. But I retain a significant amount of skepticism about the economics underlying the market.
So if there is a prime takeaway from this post, it is that I expect additional volatility in the weeks and months to come.
I will stay invested and will counsel my clients to stay invested, but in a posture that reflects the economic reality and in line with each person's specific goals and tolerance for risk.
Now, to the data, observations, and insights.
The economy =/= the market
The Congressional Budget Office is projecting significant contraction in the US economy through the COVID 19 pandemic.
The Q1 numbers are already behind us, and the projected drop in GDP to NEGATIVE 39.6 is expected to lead to a negative real growth rate for the year of ~ 5.6%
Against this backdrop of expected economic contraction, the stock market (at least as represented by the S&P 500 index) has regained a lot of ground lost during the "shut down". If you dial out the perspective to a 12 month or longer view on the index, returns are now positive -- from May 22, 2019 to today, the S&P is up about 2.75%. This disconnect between the market and the economic data can be jarring and confusing, and often leads to the invocation that "the market is not the economy". They aren't the same, but are related.
Stock market investors are generally assumed to be buying into a share of future net income from the companies they choose to own. The earnings from any given company can diverge from the broader economy in the short term, and for a very limited number of companies that diverge could persist for a while, but my expectation is that over time, the valuation of a company's stock should reflect the economy that they operate within.
Why is the market "going up"?
I will continue to maintain a humble awareness that I cannot know anything for sure about the present or future state(s) of the financial markets, but I can make some informed guesses about pieces of it.
It is a reasonable question to ask: if the economy is really hurt, why would the stock market go up?
From where I sit, there are two primary drivers of the index valuation since mid March: cash from the government (& Fed), and outsized index constituents.
This chart shows the "balance sheet" of the Federal Reserve going back to the early 2000s. The shaded bar covers the period of the "financial crisis" or "Great Recession", and that sharp uptick in the chart was when the "bailouts" and "quantitative easing" and other financial interventions happened. The Fed's balance sheet doubled in that phase, from just under one TRILLION dollars to more than two. The Fed remained invested in the market at elevated levels, creeping up over time to about $4.5T, and then in March of this year jumped about 75% to ~ $7 trillion.
We throw around big numbers a lot in discussions of financial markets and the economy, so it may help to put ~ $2.5T to $3T in context. The image below shows the (2018) GDPs for Germany, Italy, and France:
So far this year, the Federal Reserve has injected cash to our economy roughly double the entire GDP of France (and 3/4 of our own GDP from 2018).
For another comparison that also leads to my next point, the largest companies in the US are all grouped roughly around $1T in "market capitalization". Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are all valued at +/- $1T in the current market -- the Fed pumped the rough equivalent of two to three "Googles" into the economy in a matter of weeks.
Those four stocks also play a role in my understanding of the current index valuation. I will focus on just one as an example here, but all four are shown in the chart below.
Microsoft is up more than 16% year to date, maybe because people are relying more on their cloud products during "work from home" or buying Xboxes or whatever. The WHY is less important than the WHAT for the moment. At present, MSFT makes up about 5.6% of the whole S&P 500. In a overly simplified calculation, about 90 basis points of the S&P's return for 2020 so far comes from Microsoft. If you took MSFT out of the index, instead of the S&P being "down" about 8.9% on the year, it would be down about 9.75%.
Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are the largest components of the S&P, and all are up big over the last few months, and up even more over the last year. Removing their contributions from the index makes the overall "stock market" returns look very different. This dynamic is one reason that my approach to investing is inclined to the use of "index funds" and away from picking or holding individual stocks for most clients. It is VERY difficult to know well in advance which small handful of stocks is going to do well in any given cycle, and marginally less hard to guess whether or not the "whole market" is going to rise or fall. For today's post, the point about MSFT et al is that they are experiencing outsized returns during the pandemic and because they are huge contributors to the index valuation, those outsized returns are propping up the "market" in a meaningful way.
So what will happen next?
Over the last few weeks I have been revisiting "professional" market projections from late 2019, well before the COVID 19 crisis was on anyone's RADAR. Banks and financial market participants like Morgan Stanley, Vanguard, etc all put out their capital market assumptions for the coming cycle, and the projections made in the 4th quarter of 2019 were...lackluster? Many of the projections were cautioning investors to prepare for "real" (meaning inflation adjusted) returns of less than 4% or 5% annualized for a number of years.
It is entirely possible that those numbers anticipated some number of "shocks" to the economy and the markets, but I strongly suspect that none of those projections figured on a calendar 2020 with negative GDP growth of 5% to 6%.
So in the context, I am trying to plan and position for subdued equity returns in the overall market, and looking for opportunities to create and realize value in that environment.
I would be remiss to ignore interest rates in this discussion. Just this week, the UK issued a new three year bond at "negative yields", and the US issued a new 20 year treasury bond at about 1.2%. Overall interest rates remain at or near historic lows, and part of the Federal Reserve's growing balance sheet came through purchases of corporate and municipal bond funds, providing some pricing support (and lower yields) in those markets. While it is tempting to say things like "interest rates CAN'T go lower", that would be irresponsible and unsupported by the data. I DO tend to believe that interest rates will rise from here, but am obliged to plan for a variety of paths forward, including some version of sustained "zero interest rate policy"
How to react?
If you have a robust financial plan, now is probably the time to focus on executing that plan. Reviewing asset allocations, identifying tax improvement opportunities, refreshing estate planning and asset location strategies -- these may all be productive steps to take during the present "crisis".
If you DO NOT have a robust financial plan, it is past time to address that gap. Whether with DRW Financial or another professional offering advice as a fiduciary, having a plan in place should increase confidence that your particular goals are addressed.
My blog posts are not intended as a solicitation for new clients, or
as a recommendation to buy or sell any investment, or to follow any
investment or tax strategy. They are intended to provide some educational perspective
on the markets and economy. If you would like actionable advice and live in a state
where DRW Financial is registered to operate, feel free to reach out via email.
This post focused on target date funds, but could similarly apply to a "passive" portfolio of index funds that includes an allocation to bonds.
Target retirement date mutual funds have become a mainstay of employer sponsored retirement plans (401k plans, for example), and many retail investors are choosing these options as well for their simplicity. The general idea of a target date fund (TDF) is that the fund holds a mix of assets - -mostly stocks and bonds -- in proportions that shift over time to lower the portfolio's expected volatility into the retirement date.
In overly simplistic terms, this means that a far off target date fund will hold mostly stocks, and a very close target date fund will hold a relatively high proportion of bonds.
For one example, consider the Vanguard Target Retirement 2040 fund, symbol VFORX:
This fund is meant for investors who believe that the year 2040 is likely when they will begin taking retirement distributions from their savings, or at least represent the amount of risk they want to take with those savings in the present.
The Vanguard page for this fund also shows the underlying funds that make up the TDF:
For this blog post, I want to focus on the bond allocations within this fund. We can get more information on each, as they trade independently of the TDF under the symbols VTBIX and VTIBX. For further simplicity here, I will focus solely on the domestic fund, VTBIX.
The rationale for holding bonds in a "diversified" portfolio along with stocks is that they historically represent different types of risk, and they typically respond differently to major shifts in the market's perception of risk. Often, in times of distress for the stock market, some investors will shift some of their money from stocks to bonds in pursuit of more stability or predictability, and this shift may raise the prices of bonds temporarily.
And this general dynamic played out in the recent stock market correction related to the COVID 19 virus -- stocks fell, and at first bonds of almost every type rose. A subsequent wave of market reactions pushed US Treasury bonds higher still, but bonds of almost every other type (corporate bonds, municipal bonds, mortgage backed bonds, etc) fell a considerable amount as the market adjusted to consider the risk of those bond issuers "defaulting" on their obligations. For example, investors were forced to consider if bonds backed by a particular retailer or airline or car company would pay as expected if those companies were forced to close or go into bankruptcy.
The chart below is clipped from CNBC, and shows the "year to date" price of the bond fund. That peak in early March, the sell off over the next two weeks, and the rebound up to today all match the general pattern of bonds in the market (except for US Treasuries which saw a much more muted sell off in mid-March)
This all leads to the inspiration for today's post: what does it mean to continue to hold bonds in the current market? Will bonds continue to provide the volatility dampening effect as per historical precedent?
Pulling together fact sheets, prospectuses, and other resources on this particular Vanguard fund suggests that the current composition of underlying bonds is roughly 44% US Treasuries, with another 22% in mortgage backed bonds from "government sponsored entities" like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
In the current environment, the Federal Reserve is actively buying up those two categories of bonds to provide support and liquidity to the market -- this means, that all else held equal, the prices of those categories of bonds are being pushed higher and their yields pushed lower.
For the VTBIX fund, the SEC Yield is currently just under 2%, and the distribution yield just over 2.5% -- but the underlying "yield to maturity" of the bonds held by the fund is ~ 1.70%, an average duration of more than 6 years, and an average maturity of more than 8 years. Taken all together, an investor holding this fund (or one very similar) may want to consider the possible paths for forward for economic gain in the fund, or the ways this holding may contribute to the overall performance of their portfolio.
The "total return" of a bond or bond fund is made up of cash flows and price movement. As in the chart shown above, an investor buying the VTBIX fund on March 17 or so would have experienced a rise in price in addition to whatever dividends and interest the fund paid out during the holding period. And an investor holding that fund from March 7 to March 20 would have seen a meaningful shift to a lower price.
A question I am asking myself and on behalf of my clients in this market is what may I rationally expect for bond and bond fund prices looking forward?
The author holds no positions in the referenced funds, and is not soliciting a buy or sell of any security.
We ARE reviewing client investments in the current context of compressed interest rates and prospective returns on bonds and fixed income allocations.
The recent collapse in US bond yields to all-time historic lows presents an opportunity and an obligation to review the prevailing yield to maturity (and yield to "worst") of the bond and "fixed income" portions of an investment portfolio.
We know that bond prices and yields are inversely related, at least for bonds with fixed coupons and no call features. As yields rise, prices fall; as yields fall, prices rise, all else held equal.
In asset allocation theory, an investor may hold bonds as a sort of counter-weight to stocks -- while stock and bond prices may move together and in the same direction at times, when volatility in the market rises and stock prices fall due to perceived risk, bond prices tend to rise as investors seek more stability in more predictable investments.
That dynamic has played out in the US investment markets over the last few weeks as the major stock indices have fallen by double digit percentages.
Holding to Maturity, or not
The value of an individual bond is set by its yield. That is, the market sets a yield for the risk associated with that bond, and the price is calculated from that yield. A bond can have several different yield measures: yield to call, yield to maturity, yield to worst...From the perspective of the investor holding a bond, the "yield to worst" may best capture their economic opportunity. Bond funds do not behave exactly like individual bonds, but the value of a bond fund should relate to the underlying value of the bonds it holds.
An investor who buys a bond or bond fund and then sees the relevant market yield for that investment fall should see the price of their investment rise, and so is presented with an opportunity to continue holding the investment or selling it at a gain. The decision between those options will require some analysis and will depend on the investor's particular circumstances.
Original YTM and prevailing YTM aren't the same
When an investor buys a bond or bond fund, the yield to maturity on that day and at the price they pay does matter -- it establishes a basis and informs the expected holding period return if the bond is held to maturity. But as the price of the investment changes and the term to maturity decreases, the prevailing or mark-to-market yield to maturity (and yield to worst) also matter a great deal, but are often overlooked by investors and their advisers.
Consider an example where a client buys a bond of SAMPLE COMPANY to yield 4% for 10 years, and in a few months finds that the market has set a new, lower yield for that bond at 2.5%...this would mean that the price of the bond would have risen to set the market yield for the bond at ~ 2.5% -- the investor could sell the bond at a capital gain to other investors who want the 2.5% yield.
Why would a person sell in this situation? If their original goal was to earn 4% returns on their money, they may not be content to "only" earn 2.5%, but that is the remaining opportunity for that investor over the term of the bond.
What's special about the current market
As of 10am this morning, the US stock markets look headed for another significant drop. The Dow Jones Industrial index is down more than 1.5% on the day, bouncing between -450 and -650 points, depending on when you look; the S&P 500 is down almost 2%.
This is a chart showing those two index levels over the last 12 months:
The numbers in the chart may be hard to read -- they show that current prices versus a year ago are still "up", with the Dow and S&P showing gains of 7.5% and 15.5% respectively for that period.
The next image shows the price movement for two bond funds for the same period, one tracking a wide variety of bonds, and the other a tighter selection of US government bonds of intermediate term:
Those investments ALSO show significant gains for the period, and show the effects of a "flight to quality" i the last few days as the stock market volatility has ramped up. And speaking of volatility, here's a look at the VIX index, which represents one measure of market volatility:
The recent spike is moderately higher than similar spikes in February and December of 2018, but still less than half the levels seen in 2008 during the "crisis".
So, what's happening and what should investors do about it?
I will continue to refrain from suggesting that I know with certainty the "why" of any given event in the markets, but I'm comfortable assuming that this activity has at least some source in the Coronavirus news. The value of any given stock relies implicitly on that company's likelihood of realizing profits, and the market trying to assign a "present value" to a future stream of those profits. When something happens to introduce increased uncertainty about those profits, the market reacts by widening their range of assumptions, and essentially by design tend to "overshoot" the estimates for how bad (or good) things may turn out.
Because this particular virus is "new", and we don't know precisely how widely it will spread and how disruptive the spread will be to different parts of the economy, large market participants are reacting by dramatically widening their math on future profits. When more information comes in, the market will likely tighten their assumptions again and the market will settle into a more stable range of prices; what we don't know is if that more stable range will be higher/lower/similar to where we were just before the virus hit.
For my own investments, and those I manage for my clients, my intention is to maintain a risk appropriate posture; for goals with "long" time horizons, like retirement 10 or 20 or 30 years out, I will continue to hold portfolios weighted to stocks, with a smaller allocation to bonds, cash, etc. For shorter goals, I will continue to hold bonds, cash, and short term instruments in incrementally higher proportions to constrain the overall portfolio volatility.
This week and next I will look for opportunities to tactically realize "tax losses" if they are valuable to my clients; I will review if specific index tracking funds performed as expected; I will use cash flows from dividends and interest to make tactical reinvestments; and I will rebalance portfolios that have drifted away from the client's designated plan.
It is apparently the season when the big investment banks announce their assumptions for how the market may perform over both the next year and the next decade. Both Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan have recently released their forecasts, and I want to take the opportunity to share my views and how DRW Financial intends to work with our clients’ investment needs both now and later.
We know that it is a fraught exercise to try to predict the future with any certainty, no less so when discussing financial markets. With that in mind, I read posts like these from JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley as “informed guesses”, and try to recognize that those firms need some baseline estimates in place to inform the work they do. We also need baseline estimates to help us build portfolios that have a chance of matching up with our clients, their needs, and their goals.
Both JPM and MS are offering fairly constrained guidance for the next 10 years or so, and both focus their explanations on a typical “60:40” portfolio, meaning an asset allocation with 60% of the funds holding stocks and 40% holding bonds. Morgan Stanley’s guess is that this type of portfolio would return approximately 4.1% on average, annually, and JP Morgan puts their number a bit higher at 5.4%. It is worth noting that both numbers are significantly lower than the average over the last 10 years (roughly 10% per year average return on an inflation adjusted basis) or 20 years (roughly 7.2% on an inflation adjusted basis).
The context and “why” of these forecasts may be useful, as well. We find ourselves in a situation where stocks AND bonds have performed pretty well over the last 10 and 20 year timeframes. Since November of 2009, stocks (as represented by the S&P 500 index) have risen about 175% in total, bonds (as measured by the AGG “aggregate bond fund”) have risen about 8% total on price, in addition to their income distributions, and interest rates (as measured by the 10 year treasury yield) have fallen by about 52% — when interest rates fall, bond prices rise. Part of what goes into these market forecasts is a guess about whether trends can continue or not — while there is not technically a cap or ceiling on stocks and their ability to continue to rise, history has shown us that “corrections” occur with regularity (a “correction” is defined as a 10% or greater decline in stock prices); with bonds, there is a more natural cap or ceiling on price increases, as yields approach ~ 0%.
So what do we think here at DRW Financial, and how are we preparing for the next market cycle?
We start with a dose of humility, and recognize that we cannot know precisely what the market will bring.
We follow evidence based best practice in advising clients, not only on their investment choices, but also about their broader approach to financial security.
We choose an asset allocation mix that suits each client’s tolerance for risk, and that matches their specific goals.
We fill that asset allocation with low cost and well managed index funds, and we rebalance and evolve both the allocation mix and fund choices over time as the client’s situation changes and better fund options become available.
To optimize for whatever the market brings, we pay attention to the way our asset allocation choices interact with each other (specifically via correlation, or the way two assets tend to move together or not). We prefer to avoid high correlations within our portfolios so that a shock in one part of the market does not pull the whole portfolio down.
We seek to diversify not only by asset class (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc), but by geography and underlying currency and place within the market (think “small cap” vs “large cap” stocks, or “developed” vs “emerging” international economies).
And then...we wait and see.
If the market does great, we adjust. If the market does poorly, we adjust. If an opportunity arises to take some measure of risk “off the table” and still meet the client’s goal, we do so. So whether the market rises by 5% or 10% next year, or falls by 20% or more, we have a plan in place designed to match the needs of our clients, and informed by the experience and best research we can find.
Resources and references:
A CNBC story about Morgan Stanley's forecasts
JP Morgan release on November 4, 2019 titled "Long-Term Capital Market Assumptions Executive Summary"
10 and 20 year "60:40" data generated at PortfolioVisualizer.com
Would you benefit from converting some of your “traditional” retirement savings (think 401k or IRA) into a ROTH type IRA? An overview of the strategy may be useful in making your own determination.
Traditional vs ROTH -- what’s the difference?
Contributions to a traditional IRA (or 401k, 403b, 457 plan…) have to potential to lower your taxable income in the year of the contribution, and may defer income taxes on gains while held inside the account. When the funds are withdrawn, they are typically taxed as income at your marginal rate, and if funds are withdrawn before age 59.5, an additional 10% tax penalty may be assessed.
In contrast, contributions to a ROTH are made “after tax”, and so receive no income tax benefit in the year of the contribution. Taxes on gains are deferred as with traditional IRA balances. But when funds are withdrawn, after age 59.5, there is no income tax due.
Let’s talk about RMDs a bit.
The government may be OK deferring income taxes on retirement savings, and offering a tax break in some cases when funds are contributed, but they definitely prefer to get to tax that money eventually. For traditional IRA (and 401k, etc) balances, “required minimum distributions” begin when you turn 70.5. There is a standard calculation that uses the last year ending balance of your funds in all of your traditional retirement accounts and your current age, and kicks out a number that MUST be withdrawn from your accounts and subjected to income taxes. Failure to meet your RMD comes with stiff penalties on top of the regular taxes.
Because ROTH balances are “after tax” already, they are not typically subject to RMDs.
Why would someone convert to ROTH?
The rationale to convert some or all of your traditional retirement savings to the ROTH style will depend on your particular circumstances. Some reasons that may be compelling:
Some Practical Considerations
DRW Financial provides financial planning services and investment management to clients
per agreement. DRW Financial does not provide professional tax or legal advice, and recommends that people engage a tax or legal professional prior to taking action.
Many investors recognize that the bond market provides an opportunity for asset class diversification, but what may go unappreciated are the insights that bonds can provide for investments in the stock market. There are three data points in particular that can be useful for investors building portfolios in stocks.
Inflation crossover rate
The actual rate of inflation that an investor experiences over their investing timeline has enormous consequences for their economics; at a minimum, investors hope and plan for a return on their money that matches inflation to maintain their purchasing power. When making return projections for a given investment goal, like retirement savings, it generally makes sense to apply an assumption for the rate of inflation over that period. Investors can use historical inflation data, or the most recent measure, or can make a guess about what is likely to happen in the future.
When making a guess about the future, the bond market may provide a helpful insight. The “breakeven rate”, which measures the difference in yield between a point on the yield curve between traditional treasury bonds and inflation indexed treasury bonds, captures in one number the bond market’s anticipated inflation for that period. This image shows the breakeven rate at the 10 year spot on the curve:
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 10-Year Breakeven Inflation Rate [T10YIE], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/T10YIE, September 5, 2018
The most recent value of 2.08% suggests the bond market currently believes that to be the likely annual inflation rate over the next ten years.
Risk free rate
Approaches to valuation for stocks like the Capital Asset Pricing Model and mathematics to analyze options like the Black-Scholes model require an input for the “risk free” rate. Investor preference can dictate what rate they choose for this purpose; the 3 month T Bill rate is often useful due to the regular supply via Treasury auctions, the minimal duration risk, the high liquidity, and the full backing of the United States government credit quality.
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), 3-Month Treasury Constant Maturity Rate [DGS3MO], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DGS3MO, September 5, 2018.
Viewing the change and volatility in the chosen rate over time can also help inform expectations for the stability of the model. For example, in the CAPM calculations, a 3 month T Bill rate at 1% implies a very different value for a subject stock than the same rate at 2%.
Shape of the curve
The “yield curve” is made up of treasury bills, notes, and bonds with maturities ranging from a few days to as much as thirty years. The historically normal shape of this curve slopes upward, with the shortest bonds showing yields that are relatively lower than bonds with longer maturities. There are different theories for why the curve is normally shaped in this way, with implications for investor preference and opinions about risk, but for decades the typical relationship between spots on the curve is that longer maturity bonds yield more than shorter, with the amount of difference rising and falling over time.
When the curve deviates from the historical norm, and either “flattens” to where there is little difference between the yields at different spots on the curve, or “inverts” to where shorter rates yield more than longer rates, there may be serious implications for the economy and for the stock market.
The image below shows the 10 year treasury rate minus the 2 year treasury rate for the last ten years. Over that period, the spread between the two has bounced around a considerable amount, and in the last few months has shrunk to about 0.25%
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Minus 2-Year Treasury Constant Maturity [T10Y2Y], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/T10Y2Y, September 4, 2018.
Market participants may read many portents into a flattening or inverted yield curve. Some common concerns are that a curve that deviates from the norm in this way suggests that a recession is likely in the near future. A more concrete view is to consider how the actions of the Federal Reserve propagate out through the bond market. In the recent case, the Fed has raised their funds target several times, which led to the short end of the market rising too (see the 3 month Bill rate above). The points on the curve further out, such as at the ten year and thirty year spots, have not yet priced in the likelihood of higher inflation or the Fed funds target to sustain in the current range. So the short end yields are up, but the longer yields have risen less on a relative basis; this leads to a flatter curve.
Notes and disclaimers
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis provides an excellent resource for economic data; the charts and figures for this article are all sourced from FRED.
This article is intended for educational purposes only, and is not a solicitation to buy or sell any security or investment. Investors should consult with a qualified professional, and carefully consider the risks and potential rewards of any investment strategy prior to making an investment.
Why did the market "go down" in late January, 2018? There are many possible reasons, and most of the time a substantial move in the market is really about a combination of things (if there is any real reason at all).
My current vote for the "biggest" reason for this particular fall in the price of stocks is what was happening in the bond market, which was itself reacting to what was happening with the Federal Reserve policy, which was itself...complicated.
Inflation always matters...sometimes, it matters more
In brief, the Federal Reserve in the United States has a few main purposes, which are often reduced to the "dual mandate" of promoting employment and moderating interest rates. The entire financial system relates more or less directly to the cost of money over time (aka interest rates), and inflation is a major consideration in how the markets set appropriate interest rates for a given investment or transaction.
Again, speaking in simple terms here, for an investment to yield an economic gain to the investor, the realized return must be greater than the rate of inflation for the same period. If not, the investor is actually losing "purchasing power". For example, if I have $1 today and a can of soda costs $0.50, I can buy two cans. If I wait a few days, and the price of the soda rises to $0.55 but my $1 is still just $1, I can no longer buy two cans...the purchasing power of my dollar has eroded due to inflation.
In January of this year, two things seemed to come together to jolt the market: (1) the major US stock indices were setting records for the longest period without a "correction"; and (2) the Chairwoman of the Fed was stepping down and aside for her successor. My view is that these two factors were causing the market to process what might happen with inflation, both from pressure of a "hot" stock market, and from the relative uncertainty as to how the new Chairman would respond to that pressure.
The US has enjoyed a very long period of relatively tame inflation, and the prospect of a quicker increase in consumer prices can be unsettling.
Investment options in an inflationary period?
For investors (which includes normal folks looking to properly manage their retirement savings), the task of how to best position themselves in a period of rising inflation can be challenging. Here are a few points to consider:
Time to review with a pro?
David R Wattenbarger, president of DRW Financial
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